Absent Grown-Ups: Over-sexed and Material-Worlded to Death

My column at First Things today is about what creates grown ups in the world, and what happens to the world when we resolutely refuse to be raised into it:

A psychotherapist friend once confessed to me that she still makes each of her five grown children call her on rainy nights, to tell her they are safely at home. “So many mothers run away from their children or put them in nurseries or go out to work,” Dorothy Day noted, “because they can’t stand . . . the suffering that such love entails.”

Sound parenting involves being a grown up, but almost none of us really are, when we get started. A parent becomes one within the act of learning to be a family-unit, amid the constantly changing dynamics of individuals advancing through life-stages together. One could argue that as parents raise the children, the children, quite paradoxically, raise the parents. When parents resist being raised, families break down and collapse.

I’m sure someone in the combox will pipe up, “I’m childless and quite mature, thank you.” Maturity is different. There is a kind of growing up that only comes from life-commitments and sacrifices that force complete selflessness, and most of the time, that doesn’t mean a career you give hours to; that work is ultimately self-serving. Most of the time, it means a kind of parenting, either in actuality or the abstract; it means putting your whole self out there for dependent human beings who may turn around in thirty years and utterly break your heart, because, in truth, you raise them — and they raise you — but you never own them.

Something happens when you make that sacrifice, and allow yourself to be denuded; like flowering bushes, when we are cut back, we grow more fully. Growing into your best, most authentic, most mature self will cost something of you.

That is the adulthood that only comes when you are living your life in a state of controlled surrender and responsibility, within the dynamics of family. That holds true even when the family dynamic is adopted or adapted-to (as with monasticism). Within that structure — which is about all sorts of “family” forms that arise when we embrace the notion of vocation — we raise each other and grow together. Without it, we become Japan — sterile and self-interested, but only until we disappear completely:

A recent report explores whether a perceived lack of hope, mixed with evolving social norms and governmental interference, is behind the alarmingly low marriage and birth rates in Japan. I wonder, though, if having a career and going out with friends simply seems easier to people than committing to the long haul of lunacy and sorrow that comes with the intimacy of familial relationships.
Unmentioned within the piece is any notion that marriage and family—far from being simply one more life choice among many—is a true vocation, one capable of bringing depths of meaning and fulfillment that go beyond the satisfactions of work and friends.

Recent champions of such an idea include Tim and Sue Muldoon, authors of a new book, Six Sacred Rules for Families: A Spirituality for the Home. The Muldoons. . .They manage, in a slender volume, to outline and discuss what a terrible, beautiful, intrusive, and ultimately enriching thing it is to cast our nets into the depths of marriage and family life.

“Family life is a crucible of letting go of our egos,” they write.

“It is critical that parents model for children what it means to live compassionately, to practice obvious acts that show children how to choose to participate in building a Kingdom larger than oneself.”

What happens to a society in which no one wishes to be a parent, to abandon ego in order to model compassion and sacrifice in a way that forms healthy adults and, by extension, healthy nations? If we put adulthood into suspense and choose to live like perpetual college students—focused on the self to a profoundly exclusionary degree—will the political class become the de facto adults in our society? If so, what values will they model?

You can read the whole thing, here. You have to go there, anyway, if you want to understand the egg picture!

Ethika Politika says:
“. . .criticism might best be directed not toward the lustful and immodest, but toward the cold and calculated. At the end of the day, it may just be the latter that claims the greatest victory over personal community.”

Tim Muldoon Raves about this new “field guide for marriage” by Dr. Gregory Popcek

Both men’s books, by the way are Current Features within the Patheos Book Club.

And speaking of marriage, family, kids, do check out Simcha Fisher’s spectacularly-received debut book: The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning. It is as grown up as it gets, but wise, funny and compassionate, too.

Also: Mollie Hemingway on Fecundophobia: the fear of children and fertile women.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • vox borealis

    that doesn’t mean a career you give hours to; that work is ultimately self-serving.

    Yes, yes, yes, and yes again.

  • Slocum Moe

    It isn’t the thing that you devote your life to that distinguishes and defines you, it’s the depth of commitment and the love you put into it. I’m not arguing that parenting isn’t a wonderful and truly sacraficial pursuit and for you it may eclipse all others but that’s you.

    Jesus was childless…or was he?

    Just piping up from the com boxes.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    “I’m sure someone in the combox will pipe up, “I’m childless and quite mature, thank you.” Maturity is different. There is a kind of growing up that only comes from life-commitments and sacrifices that force complete selflessness, and most of the time, that doesn’t mean a career you give hours to; that work is ultimately self-serving.”
    Are you saying then that priests and nuns and other celibate religious are not mature? That’s a rather breath-taking blanket claim that really can’t possibly hold up under scrutiny. There are many responsible adults who mature without children.

  • MeanLizzie

    Seriously, Manny, did you not read the post? Where I wrote: “That is the adulthood that only comes when you are living your life in a state of controlled surrender and responsibility, within the dynamics of family. That holds true even when the family dynamic is adopted or adapted-to (as with monasticism). Within that structure, we raise each other and grow together.” It comes down to the NOTION OF VOCATION, and the dynamic of “family” whatever form that takes. I thought I was pretty clear about that.

  • MeanLizzie

    Again, I would point you to the whole graph on the “dynamic of family” – “within that structure we raise each other and grow together.” I think Jesus very much parented the apostles and all of his followers. But you knew I’d say that, I’m sure. :-)

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    OK, but sorry it’s still a ridiculous claim. Everyone can claim “controlled surrender and responsibility” under their circumstances. So if I point to a childless person who is not “within the dynamics of family” who is mature (how do you even prove such a thing one way or the other?) then your whole theory falls apart? And if I point to a married man with children who lacks maturity (I certainly know some of them) then your theory also falls apart? Actually I can think of close friends in both catagories.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    And was Peter the Apostle immature for abandoning his wife (not sure if he had children) and taking off with some religious guru? :-P

  • MeanLizzie

    But Manny, you’re talking about maturity — which I concede does not require family — I’m talking about being a “grown-up” which is something distinct, b/c it involves a dynamic interaction that is distinctly NOT about the self, even if it wants to be. I was “mature” enough to live on my own in an apartment when I was 20 years old. It took marrying my husband and raising kids for me to become a “grown up.’ Conversely (to use your example) some people may become parents and NEVER become a “grownup” because they are never able to get to the sacrificial part; life never becomes about more than themselves. Perhaps broaden your thinking a little…once again, the whole point is to consider the thing you’re doing — even if it leaves you single, celibate, etc — within the notion of vocation, self giving. Then perhaps it becomes clearer? How many mature, fully grown up persons do you know who are not self-sacrificial?

  • MeanLizzie

    Perhaps put the tongue back in your mouth, because you’ve scored no points,yet. Do you know whether or not Peter was a widower? The Bible never mentions his wife, nor does he in his letters. The fact that his MIL, after being healed, got up and waited on Jesus and the apostles at least SUGGESTS that she was in charge of his household, so it’s entirely possible that Peter was a widower. Whether he was or was not, however, the fact that his MIL was living under his roof — sheltered, supported and included within a family unit — tells us that Peter was conscientious regarding his family. When he “took off” with his religious guru, for all we know his MIL was part of that amorphous group of women who followed them.

    Btw, the Apostle Peter only fully became all that he could be — in fullness and authenticity — when he became the spiritual father of a whole church. But again, you’re hung up on “maturity.” I’m not talking about maturity.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I see your point. I could almost agree with you. I may have off handily said something similar at some point in my life. But when one really scrutinizes it, it falls short. For a good number of people that’s probably true. Having adopted my only child late in life, I can reflect on my years before and after the adoption and I’m not sure there’s that much of a difference. Of course I was the eldest child of one parent who was disabled and another that did not speak English. On the other hand, there are countless people who have children and are completely irresponsible and not “grownup.” I don’t know. The claim is too sweeping, and the distinction between mature and grownup too nebulous.

  • J.

    So does that mean that I, as an infertile wife, will never be a “grown up”?

  • Roughcoat

    My wife and I tried to have children. We did everything we could, over a period of many years. Fertility treatments, in vitro procedures, etc., etc. Result? Nothing, except anguish and ruined finances. God’s will? One would hope. Our so-called consolation: my father reverted to a form of childishness due to Alzheimers; now my mother has it too. We got to care for him, now her. More anguish and ruined finances. Have we grown up in the process? One would hope.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Hmm, you’re right about St. Peter’s wife. I didn’t realize that. Learn something new every day.

  • MeanLizzie

    To J: Ask yourself that question, in light of what I have spelled out here: infertility works within a family dynamic, doesn’t it? It’s not something you select for yourself but a dynamic that involves precisely the things that make a grown up: living with denial of what you (presumably) want for yourself, in order to serve the mysteries of vocation as God has worked it within your life.

    I gather you want to be offended by what I have written, here, but I don’t see how you can be, if you’re seriously considering your life, your self, your adulthood, and what you have painfully been denied and what you have (perhaps) been offered in another way, or in another stead. I’m pretty clear in this piece that all of this needs to be considered with the mindset of vocation. Anyone who wants to read this as a simplistic, “if you’re not an actual parent, you’re nothing” either has never read me before, or really wants to be offended. I hope you do not want to be. :-)

  • MeanLizzie

    We’ll have to agree to disagree, Manny, precisely because you clearly had already become very much a “grownup” WITHIN A FAMILY DYNAMIC before you adopted your child. You did the parental/self-sacrifice thing in a different way, first. So…you sort of make my point for me. :-)

  • MeanLizzie

    A very heavy burden. Yes, that’s pretty much spelling out the parenting dynamic.

  • J.

    Thank you for your reply. I apologize if I sounded offended. I was just…hurt, I guess. Sometimes, being Catholic and infertile does make me feel like I’m nothing, because the Church puts such an emphasis on family. Thank you, again, for your reply. It was very consoling. God bless you!

  • MeanLizzie

    No apology necessary. I completely understand where you’re coming from, and hope you believe that I never intended to hurt you. Sometimes it’s easy to feel like we’re all supposed to fit a model and if we don’t, we’re left out or defective, or something. But as Saint Paul wrote, “many roads, different callings…” God’s plan is for each one of us, and we “grow up” amid that mystery of seeking it out, surrendering to it, discovering where he wants us, and then living out that vocation so open-heartedly that it turns us into what we were always meant to be. The story of Mother Antonia, who just passed away, goes in that direction. She had 8 children, and no doubt loved them, but surprised herself and them when she discovered that her end was meant to be not so much “mother” to a well-off tribe of kids in the US, but as “mother” to prisoners in Tijuana, Mexico. Her story is here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theanchoress/2013/10/18/i-think-prison-freed-me-mother-antonia-brenner-rip/

    I liked what Pope Francis said, today, about how God “meddles” in our lives to heal our wounds. http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2013/10/22/pope:_god_meddles_with_our_lives_and_heals_our_wounds/en1-739604

  • David

    “A recent report explores whether a perceived lack of hope, mixed with evolving social norms and governmental interference, is behind the alarmingly low marriage and birth rates in Japan.”
    That is utter nonsense. The low marriage rates, the low birth rates are more likely from the western influence in Japan. To an extent, they’ve altered some of their societal traditions in their embrace of materialism – especially those living in the cities. But, even then, they still embrace on what makes them Japanese: a sense of honor, commitment of the adult children to their parents and grandparents, hard work, the desire for excellence and a strong educational foundation. Those Japanese living in the countryside continue to fully embrace those traits.
    My grandparents, on my mom’s side, emigrated from Japan in the early 1900s to Hawaii. They worked hard in the cane fields and pineapple fields before my grandpa became a carpenter. They set aside some of their Japanese traditions because they were now in America. My grandma learned English so she could fully converse with all of her grandchildren.
    Being a parent, I’d do anything for my two daughters and step-daughter. The same for my wife and ex-wife. Our commitment is to all three. Our girls’ responsibility is for them to do their best in whatever makes them happy in their individual lives and pursuits. We’ve tried to pass on our values, so they may become good Catholic women. In that, we have begun to step back on the guidance and let them spread their wings.
    My mom, she still worries when my family and I travel in bad weather, at night, etc. My dad – not so much, but I think he hides it better. To me, that’s how I define being a parent and being a grown-up.

  • joshaurora .

    As a family therapist, a father of nine (five went to heaven directly, though), and a member of an intentional Christian community, I have thought much over the years about this topic. Especially about whether the “culture of death” does not really come from an abandonment by a large segment of a society of the painful sacrifices that are required in growing up. I have a hunch that decadence in a wealthy society is the ability to buy off at a group level the sacrifices of family using nannies, “preschool”, and other such devices, as well as the ability to buy the needed drugs (pot, cocaine, meth, adrenaline) that are craved for anesthetizing the pain of not growing up. Sometimes I also wonder if much of the “feminist” movement is also a way of avoiding this pain of growing up. Sad. The cross of our Lord Jesus is always the way to paradise, despite what the commercials sell us.

  • Roughcoat

    Not as heavy as it could (or should?) be. I do a lot of avoiding and shirking. Alzheimer’s scares me. Maybe I’m not so grown up after all. In any event, if this is what growing up entails, I’d like a little less of it. The greatest burden seems to me to be God’s love. It’s heavy and it’s grinding me down.

  • kmk1916

    If you don’t mind, Roughcoat, I will offer Rosary for your intentions tonight. Clearly you and your wife are steeped in self-giving.

  • Nan

    I don’t have actual children but my mom, who had a stroke a couple of years ago and is now in long-term care, has informed me that I’m the mom now. I don’t enjoy being the mom because when faced with decisions, she looks at me and, sounding panic-stricken asks “what should I do?!” It’s difficult because I don’t always know and what I think best isn’t always what she thinks is best. Our new adventure is going to be enhanced assisted living. We’ll see what happens.

  • Sharon

    With a father who has Alzheimer’s, I definitely know what you mean about the disease scaring you. It is a dreadful illness and those with it do become childlike (and even pass through a kind of teenage rebellion stage, making it very hard to care for them!) Your comment about God’s love is very thought-provoking. Did Jesus feel that way sometimes, when the crowds pressed in on him day after day? I hope you will have a word with God, letting him know that the yoke feels neither easy nor light, and asking him to enlighten you. You are doing better than you think you are.

  • Sherry

    I will put you in my rosary as well.

  • Victor

    (((One could argue that as parents raise the children, the children, quite paradoxically, raise the parents. When parents resist being raised, families break down and collapse.)))
    I’ve only read without clicking the links provided and I must say that this post has got my complete attention and there’s plenty to talk about but I’ll only comment on the above first sentence.
    Speaking for myself and not our other siblings living or dead, I can say that there is no doubt in my mind and heart that I’ve helped raise my dad and mom mentally and I won’t get into the spiritual aspect of “IT”.
    God Bless their souls! My mom and dad seem to accept this fact, without of course never telling us so and being very French and a kind of enforcer in our neighbor hood, if there’s something you said and/or did, it was done with respect and a lot of patient otherwise you would suffer the consequence of your action unless you were the first born son. :)
    My dad loved to drink when he was younger and he got drunk on a few occasions and the last time I saw him drunk was when I was about 17 years old at one of our cousin’s wedding. A big fight broke out later outside probably because I got to sing on stage and for some reason they wouldn’t let my old brother sing. Anyway, my older brother Joe, the black sheep of our family, God bless his soul, had just hit a man and the blood was cussing. I could take care of myself because I spent a little time with a German boxer, God Bless his soul who by the way, still owes me $10.00 for a fight at an arena with thousands watching.
    OK Anchoress! I hear YA! Enough about YA Victor!
    Alright! :( I looked around for dad who was also in the fight, forgive me but I was kind of laughing when I saw all those drunks who could hardly stand up and I saw dad on the ground rolling around with a couple of other guys and so I reached down and asked him if he needed help and as God is my witness, it was as if time slowed down and a guy taps me on the shoulder and I turned to him and I recognized him and he says, “Do you need any help?” I replied, no thank you to which he says, That’s good cause nothing can happen to you!
    Last warning Victor! Get to the point now!
    OK! Long story short, after the fight was finished, I manage to put my dad in the back seat of his car and as I passed Saint Victor’s School in the town where I was born, I waved goodbye and drove my father and mother home safely.
    The point is, Dad was such a proud man that when he found out that I drove his car home, he never again touched another drink and that’s the truth!
    Anchoress! I’m not going to tell your readers that after I placed dad in the back seat and as I was leaving the parking lot, there was no brake and I saw the fluid which had leaked to the floor. I was backing up very slowly cause I knew that if I would have just touch another car, dad would have woke up and because I had no license he would have wanted to drive. Hey! Relax! Back then I could drive just as well as most young people today with just the emergency brakes and we could even jump on the roof of those 1946 Chev or Ford :)
    God Bless Peace

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    What a story!

  • Victor

    Thanks Manny! I think?

    For what “IT” is worth, I’m no Saint Anthony but that’s how I see

    “IT” at this time of my senior years.
    I’m telling the truth and I wrote to our good Bishop years ago telling him how I saw “IT” back then and in writing I also gave him permission decades ago to give some of my writing to those he felt might be able to use it to do some good. :)
    God Bless Peace